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THE MANY MURDERS OF DET. FRANK CONEY

By Mike Hudson

Nov. 23 will mark something of the end of an era for the Niagara Falls Police Department, as Det. Frank Coney retires after 42 years on the force, 40 of those on the detective squad.

At the age of 69, he's the oldest cop in the department, though age hasn't affected the enthusiasm he still puts into every case he's assigned to.

"I don't know what they're going to do; maybe they can bring him in on a consulting basis for some of these," Det. James Galie said recently when he and Coney responded to the scene of a house burglary on the city's East Side. "It's definitely going to be a hole that'll be pretty tough to fill."

Chief of Detectives Ernie Palmer concurred.

"Frank's record speaks for itself," Palmer said. "He brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to everything he does."

Coney began his long career back in 1967. He'd taken the police exam on a couple of previous occasions, but was held back because of his height. He stands five feet eight inches tall "until I exhale," he says. At the time, departmental regulations dictated police officers had to be at least five-ten in order to qualify.

The rule was changed and he was accepted, determined to overcome any questions about his physical stature by taking on some of the toughest assignments the department had to offer.

"After I got out of the Academy, I went to the Tactical Patrol Unit, the Flying Squad they called it, kind of like they have RAC now," he said. "So I was on that from nine at night to five in the morning, and the chief wanted to put five young guys on up in the bureau. They liked my record, my performance, and they gave me 30 days. I've been there ever since, so I must've done something right."

That "something" turned out to be homicide investigation. Asked today how many murders he's worked on, Coney said he was recently asked the same question by an attorney while sitting in the witness stand at a trial.

"I asked him what state? What agency? Hundreds, and I don't really keep track like that."

By the early 1970s, a regional push to pool law enforcement resources led to the formation of the Major Crimes Task Force here, a group overseen by the sheriff's department but utilizing assets from various police agencies on crimes deemed too serious for any one department to handle alone.

"We had a lot of homicides and they needed someone who had experience with homicides," Coney said. "So every time North Tonawanda, Lockport, the sheriff's department had a murder, they'd take us out there to work it and sort of show the other guys how it's done."

As his reputation grew, Coney found himself often involved in cases that went far beyond the borders of Niagara County.

In one such case, a Niagara Falls woman reported that her daughter, who had moved to Colorado, had gone missing. The woman had always talked to the daughter every week, and all of a sudden there was no contact. The mother checked on the daughter's credit cards and there was no activity, and she had missed her car payment as well. Chief Ernie Fera asked Coney to check into it.

"Colorado did a good job with what they had to work with, I gave them all the information from this end, but finally they couldn't come up with anything," Coney remembered. "Fran Giles, who was the sheriff then, sent me out there as part of a Major Crimes investigation. I went with John Cole, who was a sheriff's deputy then."

Both Coney and Cole played the New York detective thing to the hilt, knowing that most people in the flyover states think Niagara Falls is just on the other side of the Bronx. When Coney and Cole arrived in Denver, they didn't even go to the hotel.

"We played the act over there, they thought we were from New York City, and we played the role," he laughed. "We flipped one guy, he didn't commit the murder but he helped hide the body, and one thing led to another."

Coney and Cole found that the body had been hidden in a gold mine, 30 miles from Denver. With Colorado law enforcement acting as backup, they raided the suspect's house, finding guns, silencers and hand grenades. During a search of a second house the suspect had been using as a hideout, they found the victim's blood between the slats of the hardwood floor.

Colorado had had the case for about three months, but the whole thing had taken the New York cops about four hours to crack.

"So I called the chief and he said, 'Get outta here.' I said no, we got the guy, it's done. We helped Colorado, we got the body, and we got the perp."

It turned out that the victim had been the girlfriend of the killer, and had been sleeping on the couch after they'd had an argument. He was scared she was going to turn him in because he was running a meth lab, so he beat her to death with a wrench.

The newspapers in Denver and back home on the Niagara Frontier played the case up big and made Coney's reputation as a homicide investigator. His dogged ability to stay on cases over long and fruitless periods became legendary in law enforcement circles.

The child murderer Charles LaSage provided a case in point.

"He'd committed a murder and rape here in 1986, we found the body, an 11-year-old girl, in Love Canal. She had all her school clothes on, her backpack, and she'd been raped and strangled," Coney said. "There were family and friends gathered at the hospital, and I shook his hand and introduced myself and something just clicked. I knew right then that he did it. So I took him into the room where the body was."

Coney uncovered the little girl's body and told his man to look at what he'd done.

"He started crying, like 'No, no no,' and then he just buttoned up. I thought maybe the shock of seeing what he'd done would get him to confess, but it didn't work," Coney said.

The suspect left Niagara Falls after the killing and traveled widely around the country. But Coney was never far behind.

"The department let me go from city to city, wherever he went, and to talk to people he talked to in order to see if he'd told somebody. He'd been to Alaska, all over the place, before he went to Des Moines, Iowa," he said. F

ollowing his usual routine, Coney called Des Moines police and told them to keep a lookout if they had a murder of an 11-year-old, 12-year-old female whose family he'd befriended, because Charles LaSage would be their man.

It wasn't until 1993, seven years after the Love Canal killing, that he finally got the call he'd been waiting for.

"I was at home and I got a call from the station at about midnight," he said. "They said the detectives from Des Moines are looking for you, they want some input. So I gave them all the points to look out for, and it turned out the killer was Charles LaSage."

Along with Tim Lindquist and Ed Stefik of the Niagara County Sheriff's Department, Coney made the trip to Iowa.

"That place is desolate," he said. "We did a lot of followup investigation, and we ended up getting him charged with the murder here and the murder there. It was an 11-year-old girl there too, and under the exact same circumstances." LaSage remains in an Iowa prison today, serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Coney said that solving the long-term homicides that some might describe as "cold cases" has a lot to do with not allowing yourself to forget about the victims.

"It's just the trick of keeping on something. And not having tunnel vision," he said. "You've got to keep your mind open to all aspects."

In the case of the notorious Billy Shrubsall, who murdered his mother here in 1988 and then went on a misogynistic rampage of serial rape and vicious assault, Coney tracked his man for 14 years before making sure that justice was done.

The night before he was to have given the valedictorian address before his class at LaSalle High School, Shrubsall beat his mother to death with a Louisville Slugger baseball bat. Under questioning, he at first said she had been killed by masked intruders, later changing his story and saying he'd killed her in self-defense.

"For a kid whose mother had just been brutally murdered, he showed absolutely no emotion at all," Coney said. "He was figuring out ways to game the system from the start."

And game the system he did. After being convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, Shrubsall won his freedom after his lawyers -- using the abuse excuse -- successfully argued in Appellate Court that he should have been granted youthful offender status.

Once free, he reveled in the sort of sick celebrity something like getting away with the vicious murder of your own mother can bring in modern society, and terrorized young women from the Falls to the East Coast.

Finally arrested again after a sexual assault and a violent rape here, he faked his own suicide, penning a note claiming he'd jumped over the falls in despair, before fleeing the area and crossing the border into Canada.

For Coney, those were the years of dead-end leads when the case seemed as though it was in danger of growing cold for good. But the veteran detective knew that Shrubsall would turn up in trouble again; it was just a matter of when.

"I told them when they let him out that he would commit more crimes," he said. "And I knew he was out there somewhere, I could feel it. This was a truly diabolical individual."

He was working the graveyard shift on the night of July 24, 1998, when he got a call from a Niagara Falls man who had just watched a Canadian news program on television. There had been a story about a violent sexual predator who had just been captured in Nova Scotia. The video captured a clear image of the suspect's face.

"It was Billy Shrubsall, Frank," the caller said.

Coney immediately called the Halifax police and spoke to Det. Tom Martin. The Canadian cop was so taken aback by Coney's clipped New York accent that Martin thought one of his colleagues was playing a joke on him.

"Don't turn your back on that guy," Coney warned him. "That f---ing guy'll kill you."

Under Canadian law, Shrubsall was charged not only with vicious assaults on two Halifax women, one of whom he beat with a baseball bat, but also with being a violent repeat offender, a condition that carries a life sentence.

Coney coordinated witnesses from throughout Western New York, some in crimes Shrubsall had been charged for, others that hadn't resulted in formal charges for one reason or another, and some that had never previously been reported to authorities. Later he testified extensively at both the trial and the sentencing.

In January 2002, after hearing more than six months of testimony and arguments in the case, a Canadian judge handed down an indeterminate sentence, essentially the same as a life sentence in the United States. And even if Shrubsall should get out somehow, it would only be to return to Niagara Falls and face sentencing on the rape and sexual assault charges, before facing a new trial for criminal escape.

After 14 years, Coney got to see his man put away for good.

"Billy Shrubsall was laughing at the system all along, starting with the day he murdered his mother," Coney said. "But now he's in jail up there in Canada, and I don't think he's laughing anymore."

Exactly what retirement means for a man like Frank Coney is uncertain. Last winter, his wife Louise convinced him to go down to Florida on his vacation and they rented a house.

"He was going nuts the whole time," she said. "He didn't know what to do with himself."

Coney has already fielded several offers of full- and part-time employment.

"I'm going to relax, I guess, for a month or so anyway. But I'll wind up doing something," he said. "I know some lawyers who want me to work with them, but I don't think I'd be comfortable working for the defense, working against our guys. At least not yet.

"I'll probably miss it, I'm sure I will," he added, "but it's time."

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com October 27 2009